Dirty Dancing

Michael O'Reilly in Dirty Dancing at Dominion Theatre (c) Mark Senior
Dirty Dancing
Photo credit: Mark Senior

“Are you having the time of your life?” Can someone remind me the name of the song that’s most associated with Dirty Dancing, as I just can’t recall it… (Says the person who tweeted the same joke before the show started, groaning all the while.) As you may have guessed, the stage version of the well-loved 1987 film has returned to the West End; it runs at the Dominion Theatre for a couple of months before heading back out on the road again. If you haven’t been to a performance, be warned – it’s a lot.

It’s 1963, and the Houseman family have decided to holiday at Kellerman’s, a resort that offers a variety of activities – including ballroom dancing and golf. Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (all set to join the Peace Corps after college) is still naïve to some of the harsh realities faced by those less fortunate than her, but takes it all in her stride and goes to great lengths to help when resort dancer Penny finds herself “in trouble”. Baby spends time learning the mambo routine Penny performs at another hotel with her dance partner Johnny, and the pair develop feelings for one another. But when Baby has to call on her father in a medical emergency, a rift forms that threatens to destabilise the whole summer…

As you may expect, the show follows the film very closely, barely deviating from the path – understandable given its popularity, but some of the more ‘quick-fire’ scenes don’t always work, as the transitions aren’t quite up to it. One good innovation comes in Baby’s ‘training montage’, as the days are shown to be passing by a number of resort contests & activities taking place at the front of the stage, as Baby works on her steps in the background.

The main problem is that the whole enterprise hasn’t really been thought through; it isn’t a bad show at all, and broaches some serious topics (such as classism and abortion), but this doesn’t fit with the ‘hen party’ vibe that director Federico Bellone is otherwise going for. You can hear the boredom as characters do their best to deliver dialogue (& dad jokes) in a venue that’s probably too expensive for the show, because the majority of the audience is just waiting for the set-pieces – despite audience members professing that Dirty Dancing is their favourite film, they didn’t have any qualms in chatting through the non-musical sections, making it nigh on impossible to hear. This is aggravated by the sound levels being all wrong: the cast are practically shouting over the music, which isn’t particularly pleasant. Plus it’s always disappointing when a good chunk of the music isn’t performed live – especially as the Kellerman’s Band is excellent value.

I had anticipated that it would be a singalong kind of night, which I don’t blame people for – I just wish it could be less aggressively loud. If you’re paying exorbitant West End prices, do you want to hear the professionals or tone-deaf (& pissed) audience members? I suppose if you’re one of those drunk patrons you simply don’t care about anything other than your own experience. It’s actually quite intimidating going solo (& sober) in the midst of all this.

What’s also amusing, but baffling, is the reaction to the famous quotes (which even I knew, without seeing the film in advance) – screams rivalling those from Beatlemaniacs during the early 60s. Did you think they weren’t going to include them?! I honestly can’t wrap my head around it. The iconic lift being completed? Sure, go wild – that’s a properly impressive moment that takes great skill to complete. I know it’s not a great idea to review the audience as much as the show, but I feel it’s important to get across to any non-devotees thinking of going just how alienating & discomfiting some of the behaviour can be (and I haven’t even mentioned objectification); it’s clearly understood to be part of the experience, and I’m not a fan.

Especially as there’s one line right towards the end that got little to no reaction, but it’s an attitude to which we should all aspire: “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.” Can someone make a group booking of 360 so that the Tory government can learn something? I’d happily classify it as a work event if they took that quote on-board.

The disinterested, low-level hum during dialogue doesn’t seem to affect the talented cast, who are clearly invigorated by the energy from the audience during the big musical numbers. Carlie Milner’s dance skills are incredibly impressive as she takes on Penny’s routines, and Mark Faith is entertaining as the dubious Mr Schumacher. It’s clear that Kira Malou & Michael O’Reilly are having a whale of a time as Baby & Johnny, throwing themselves into the choreography and delivering it with aplomb.

It’s great to have another dance-focused show in the West End (Austin Wilks’ choreography is excellent), and there’s lots to enjoy – just be prepared for what may be going on around you in the auditorium!

The cast of Dirty Dancing at Dominion Theatre (c) Mark Senior (14)
Dirty Dancing
Photo credit: Mark Senior

My verdict? A pretty good show, but you need to be prepared for the overall audience experience – it’s incredibly full-on.

Rating: 3½

Dirty Dancing runs at the Dominion Theatre until 16 April 2022 – the tour continues until 29 May 2022. Tickets are available online. Full details of the tour can be found on the official website.

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